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The 5 Different Types of Fishing Reels (Details on When and Where to Use Them)

Fishing rod and reel on a boat on the ocean

With our new waterfront cabin and Hewescraft fishing boat article series, we brought on a highly experienced fishing aficionado who has done many types of fishing over a couple of decades to provide some in-depth articles about fishing.  This article covers types of fishing reels in depth.

What does a reel mean to your overall success when fishing? Here’s a quick scenario. You’re finally at the lake, the line’s ready to go, the baits on the hook, and you’re ready to cast. You flip the bail wire and let that fishing line sail across the smooth, calm water in anticipation of a beautiful early morning trout. As you slowly retrieve the line, you feel the bite. It’s light at first, just a nibble. Then it hits. Hard. You set the hook successfully, and the fight is on. The line starts screaming off the reel as the powerful fish dives deep. You adjust the drag and bring the rod tip up, adding more tension to the line. Finally, the fish has had enough, and you bring her into your net. After a quick photo, she swims off to be caught another day. The memory of that fish will last far longer than the five minutes it took to land her. Your reel will last much longer as well. It performed flawlessly when it was called upon, as it has done time and again.

A fishing reel isn’t just the line holder. It’s so much more than that. A good reel will be with you longer than you think. Most inexpensive reels will last a season or two, but genuinely great reels will last for years if properly maintained. Keep them out of the sand as much as you can, don’t kick mud on them, keep gum out of their gears, and try not to set them on fire. The basics, really.

Fishing reels have been around in some fashion for over a thousand years. I’ve been around much less than that but have used every type I’m going to cover in this list. I’m no expert in every aspect of them, but I do know my way around most of them.

Several types of reels are available, and each type serves its purposes well. Spinning reels, bait casters, spin casters, conventional reels, and fly reels make up the majority of what’s available out there.

Let’s look at the different types of fishing reels and what sets them apart from each other. I’ll also look at what general materials are used to construct a reel.

  • Reel Materials – Reels are built with several different grades and qualities of materials, depending on price.
  • Spincast Reels – Most anglers start off with a spincast reel.
  • Spinning Reels – The most common reel type on the market.
  • Baitcaster – Great for accuracy, steep learning curve.
  • Conventional – Good for trolling, deep water fishing.
  • Fly Reels – Well engineered to hold the fly line and backing material.

Related: Types of fishing swivels | Types of fishing worms | Types of fishing weights | Types of fishing bobbers

Reel Materials

Reels are constructed from several materials. The main body is typically built of aluminum, steel, or graphite. At the same time, the rest is usually made of machined aluminum or plastic, with carbon brakes and either graphite, carbon, or steel ball bearings.

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Spinning reels have a main body that includes a foot that attaches to the fishing rod and an arm that connects the foot to the main body. A spindle made of steel is attached to the body that holds the spool. Spools are typically made of machined aluminum or graphite. The spool stays in place while the bail wire rotates around it, winding the line onto the spool. The bail is basically a gate for the line. When closed, the line stays put. When open, the line is ready to cast.

The handle can usually switch from the right to the left side. The handle itself is usually either a round tip or a T tip.

Above the spool or on the bottom of the reel body is the drag adjustment. It will tighten or loosen the drag, adding or removing tension from the line. If the reel has an anti-reverse switch, it is typically located on the back of the reel, just above the bottom. The switch comes in handy when fighting a large fish. I’ve used it to keep from using too much drag when a blue catfish wanted to go for a run while I was almost maxed out on drag. Flipping the switch allows the reel to go in reverse. If used properly, you can put the right amount of pressure to slow down a feisty fish and tire them out while they overpower your drag. Most of the time, it’s far wiser to use a reel that’s recommended for catching a fish of that size. I wasn’t expecting to catch a blue, so I was using a light line and a reel that couldn’t possibly keep up. Lesson learned.

Baitcasters are made of the same materials, though the setup is different. The spool is in the reel instead of on top of it, and the handle isn’t transferable to the other side, so try it before you buy it. I use a left-handed spinning reel but prefer a right-handed baitcaster.

Spincast Reels

KastKing Brutus Spincast Fishing Reel,Reversible Handle for Left or Right Casting.

Source: Amazon

Back when I started fishing, it was commonplace for kids to get a Zebco rod/reel combo to learn the ropes. The spincast reel makes learning to cast a thing of beauty. It’s simple to use, doesn’t run into too many backlashes or bird’s nests, and my son loves casting his. He can get angry with me when I try to get him to use his spinning reel. One day he might switch, though I’m not holding my breath. I will win him over and upgrade his rod from Paw Patrol. But one step at a time.

Spincast reels have a lever on the bottom to release the line. All it takes is to press the lever in, cast, and release the lever at the right point. I am happy to say my boy can send his bait out at least 20 feet. Not too shabby. Reel the handle once, and the lever kicks in, ready to fish.

Tangles do occasionally happen. If you do run into an issue, take the top off the reel, pull out the line, straighten it out, put the top on, and reel it back in nice and tight. The downside to this type of reel is capacity. I might use one if I could put 150 yards of 12-pound braid on it. Casting is so simple and remarkably accurate. It just doesn’t hold enough line to be effective for anything more than smaller fish.

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Spinning Reels

SHIMANO Ultegra CI4 14000 XTC Offshore Saltwater Spinning Reel

Source: Amazon

Spinning reels are probably what you first imagine when thinking of fishing gear. They’re incredibly popular, and for a great reason. Sizes range from ultra-light models to exceptionally heavy models for catching big-game in the open ocean.

Spinning reels are versatile, though take practice to get the hang of. When you first start out, line tangles are easy to get and happen pretty often. Casting can be a bit tricky due to the bail. You need to lift it and hold the line with your finger to stop it from free spooling onto the ground before the cast. Once you figure it out, it becomes second nature.

A significant improvement over spincast reels is the control, casting distance, and amount of line a spinning reel provides. The ability to adjust the drag on top or bottom, depending on the model, suits most anglers well, as does the variety in sizes.

Models range widely in price. You can pick up a budget model for $15 or pick up a high-end tournament-ready saltwater model for over $2000. Professional reels can go for around $15,000. I’ve bought cheap reels, and I’ve bought top-of-the-line reels, and after years of fishing, I find those in the $100 – $300 range tend to do everything I require of a great spinning reel. If properly maintained, a good quality reel will last for 10 – 20 years.

Baitcasting Reels

Abu Garcia Pro Max & Max Pro Low Profile Baitcast Fishing Reel

Source: Amazon

Baitcasting reels are another popular reel. They provide outstanding accuracy and distance. I love using my baitcasters. When I hit the lake with them, I take along three. Each one is rigged up and ready to go with a different type of lure or soft plastic so I can quickly switch from a crankbait to a swimbait or a Senko, for example.

There are two types of baitcasters out there. The old standby is the round style. It has a larger spool and holds more line, which means longer casts. The second type is the low-profile baitcaster. It’s a compact, lightweight reel that lets you catch a broader range of fish than the older style and keeps the line straighter. You can purchase smaller sizes for trout fishing as well.

Unlike spinning reels that wind the line sideways around the spool, baitcasters wind the line straight on. The straight-line distribution removes any line twist. That’s great for casting and keeps any twists from occurring during the cast. We’ll talk about bird’s nests later.

Baitcasters are ideal for targeting bigger fish. They hold heavier line and can help bring that trophy largemouth you’ve been dreaming of into your net much more smoothly than a spinning reel can. The drag operates efficiently, generally with a wheel next to the handle. There’s a braking system to figure out, but I always recommend using a YouTube video for novice anglers to learn the proper setup of a baitcaster.

Practice using this reel in your backyard until you can cast easily without causing too many bird’s nests. The spool tends to keep spinning freely after the lure hits the water. That allows the line to unwind and make a huge mess, or “nest.” There is some discussion amongst anglers about what’s worse: having a 5-pound fish slip the hook right at the boat or have a bird’s nest in the middle of a hot bite.

Pricing for baitcasters is a bit steeper for an entry model. A beginner reel will start around $35, though, for a quality reel, it’s worth spending a bit more. Baitcasters do require a bit more of an investment. A cheap reel won’t adjust and cast properly, leading to you becoming frustrated. Bird’s nests are the worst, and a cheap reel will introduce you to them in a hurry. Start looking at models around $65 and up. Anywhere between $65 and $350 will provide you with a quality reel, and above $350 will give you a reel that will last for decades to come.

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The conventional reel is the go-to deep sea fishing reel. It holds a heavy line, is built to last through the elements and constant abuse the saltwater gives it, and is simple, easy to maintain design. Often referred to as a trolling reel, these are great for trolling or bottom fishing deep water for big game fish.

Be on the lookout for a high-quality machined aluminum body with multi-disc drag. Anything less than 350-yard capacity of 30lb test line is too small. If you hook into an absolute monster in the deep, it’s likely to peel off a few hundred yards per run. You need the extra yards to keep from being spooled.

These reels are available with a line counter, so you know how deep your bait is. You can also engage a loud clicker, which will let you know if you’ve got a fish on over the engine noise.

Fly Reels

Orvis Clearwater Large Arbor Fly Fishing Reel (2S53) - Smooth-Casting Fly Reel with Carbon-to-Stainless Stacked Disc Drag, Easily Converts Between Left and Right Hand Retrieve, Gray - II (4-6 wt.)

Source: Amazon

Fly reels provide some of the absolute highest accuracy in fishing. You want your fly to land softly in exactly the right spot. To do that, the reel needs to operate flawlessly. Resistance along the rod needs to be nonexistent.

Choosing a reel is a complicated process. It must be. I keep telling myself that to justify buying six of them. Trout reels are smaller, light reels that range from $50 for an easy-to-use budget model up to several thousand dollars for a model only needed for bragging rights. I have a couple trout reels because it’s easier to have two reels with different lines than having to change lines on the same reel. Reels can have multiple spools, and mine do, but I like to have three or four different line types, depending on where I go.

I still have my first fly reel. I no longer use it, but it travels with me whenever I take my tackle box. It needs some repairs, but I could still attach it and catch a fish if I wanted. It’s over 30 years old. Here’s the updated, probably far superior version of my first combo. Fly reels are built to last. They have very few moving parts, and essential maintenance will keep your reel working smoothly long enough to hand it down to the next generation. I love fly fishing and advocate for it every chance I get. It’s not just for elites; it’s for us, the anglers that get out there every opportunity we can because we love it.

Fly reels that are affordable aren’t bad. They get the job done and will last long enough for you to learn the sport. Practice in your yard with some yarn on the line. Keep at it, and you’ll get better rapidly. Once you land your first fish, you’ll be hooked. My first fish on the fly was just under five inches. What a monster.